Unleashing potential:  Fred Swaniker with Graca Machel, the chancellor of the African Leadership University. At present, the university has two campuses: in Mauritius and  Rwanda.  A CNN feature on the  university called it ‘the Harvard of Africa’.  Picture: SUPPLIED
Unleashing potential: Fred Swaniker with Graca Machel, the chancellor of the African Leadership University. At present, the university has two campuses: in Mauritius and Rwanda. A CNN feature on the university called it ‘the Harvard of Africa’. Picture: SUPPLIED

African educational entrepreneur Fred Swaniker says the new generation of high school pupils, university students and graduates in Africa — whom he dubs Generation Four — must reclaim their countries "from leaders who have ruined them".

"At the age of four, my family fled from Ghana to the Gambia due to political instability, only to find ourselves in the middle of more political conflict," says Ghanaian-born Swaniker, who has lived and worked in 10 African countries and is the chairman and founder of the pan-African education and leadership-focused African Leadership Group.

Speaking at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s graduation ceremony on April 5, where he received an honorary doctorate for his contribution to leadership and education, he explained how his experiences at an early age "showed me how Africa’s leaders were sadly holding back the progress of the continent and that unless we could develop better leaders, the continent would never fully realise its potential".

The one person who stood out for him as "a leader who could change an entire nation and indeed the entire world", was Nelson Mandela.

"I remember thinking, ‘all Africa needs are a few more good leaders like Nelson Mandela’. Then I thought to myself — ‘do we just sit back and hope more leaders like Madiba appear by chance?’ Or could we do something practical to actually develop such leaders in a systematic way?’

"For me, it was and is very clear: quality education is Africa’s flick switch to a transformed future."

In 2014, Swaniker launched the African Leadership University (ALU), with Graca Machel as the chancellor.

His group plans to build 25 universities across Africa. "Each campus will ultimately enrol 10,000 young leaders at a time."

Two campuses opened in 2016 — in Mauritius, where Swaniker now lives, and in Rwanda. They have 340 students from 48 African countries and will expand enrolment each year. ALU also has a Rwandan-based business school.

Swaniker says that from 2018, ALU expects to open three to five campuses a year. For most students, tuition is made affordable through a combination of scholarships and other financing mechanisms.

Swaniker says that from 2018, ALU expects to open three to five campuses a year

He chose Mauritius for the first university because its government is proactive about establishing the country as a higher education hub for Africa.

A university in SA is not on the cards because the country has established and recognised tertiary institutions. "We are certainly eager to partner with higher education institutions in SA.... We are developing three schools within our university that align with the [Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s] vision for sustainability: the ALU School of Climate Change; the School of Wildlife Conservation and the Environment and; a school to explore the sustainability of our natural, nonrenewable resources."

In pursuing his goals, Swaniker is inspired by Mandela’s call to greatness: "Every now and then a generation is called upon to be great. You can be that great generation.

"I believe the current generation of young Africans, Generation four, can be the greatest generation that Africa and indeed the entire world has ever seen," he says.

Generation one was the group of African leaders that liberated their countries from colonialism; generation two are the leaders who, by and large, have been unable to make the transition from freedom fighters to democratic leaders, and created political instability and warfare that destroyed their home countries.

 Generation three are enlightened leaders such as Mandela, whose commitment to democracy and a better life for all paved the way for generation four, the new generation of African leaders who, through education, have the potential to transform the continent.

"My hope is that half of our university graduates will become the entrepreneurs that we need in Africa – they will create the jobs that we need — and the other half will go into government and the nonprofit sector, and they will rebuild the democratic institutions that we need so that they can never again be controlled and manipulated, as so many have been, by generation two leaders like Robert Mugabe," says Swaniker.

His drive to play his part in helping to transform Africa started when his mother, Edna, a teacher living in Botswana, asked him to help her grow the study group she had established into a school.

"I was 18 and had just matriculated in Zimbabwe. My mother and I managed to establish Mount Pleasant English Medium School, which was my first exposure to educational entrepreneurship," he says. His mother still runs the school.

Generation One was the group of African leaders who liberated their countries from colonialism

Swaniker studied economics at Macalester College in the US and began his professional career as a consultant with McKinsey & Company in Johannesburg. He later attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, where he received an MBA and was named an Arjay Miller Scholar, a distinction awarded to the top 10% of each graduating class.

In 2004, at the age of 27, he launched the African Leadership Academy — a high school in Johannesburg that has leadership skills as part of the curriculum. Its matriculants write the Cambridge examination and achieve a 97% pass rate.

"I know that all big things start with baby steps, but what deeply troubled me is that we receive 4,000 applications a year, but we could accommodate only 100 young leaders at the academy. I saw the tremendous hunger for African leadership training and I knew I had to take it further."

The ALU was born.

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